The Problem Ain't The Pitching

With twenty-two games down, we’re almost a seventh of the way through the Toronto Blue Jays 2011 schedule, and despite last night’s victory, problems are beginning to emerge: Aaron Hill was his pop up hitting self until he got injured, the Adam Lind of 2009 is still waiting to emerge, Travis Snider hasn’t broken out the way we hope he will ahead of every season and Juan Rivera makes a kid with boiled broccoli looked enthused.

Adding to the offensive woes is manager John Farrell’s strange love of 1) having better players sacrifice themselves to advance runners only for lesser players to get out; and 2) attempting stolen bases at the most inopportune time possible.

Like so much of the last few seasons, it’s been frustrating to watch. And now that frustration has bled into criticism of the pitching staff. Coming into last night’s game against the Texas Rangers, Toronto pitchers were leading the American League in walks and had the worst strikes to balls ratio in the American League. As David Gershman exhibited in his graph from yesterday, more than two thirds of the Jays games to date have seen the starting pitcher abandon the game before the seventh inning.

These all sound like bad things that could be contributing to the team’s lack of success, but when we look a little bit deeper, we seensomething different emerging. We see a team’s pitching staff that also leads the American League in strike outs. We see starters and relievers both scoring consistent rankings with the fourth lowest xFIPs among their respective colleagues in the Junior Circuit. We’re seeing a different approach to pitching in Toronto, not a less successful one. Call it nibbling, call it the Dice-K method, but as boring and as delicate as it may seem, it’s working right now for the Blue Jays.

So, yes, starters may not be going as deep into games as they might have last season, and pitchers may be less willing to challenge hitters, but with the bullpen performing at the level that it is, why is that a bad thing? The important thing, after all, is that the Blue Jays allow less runs than they score. And while they currently sit in the middle of the league for runs allowed, the peripheral numbers indicate that the pitching staff is deserving of a better number than that, and we can expect to see that sort of thing evening out eventually.

Of course, this approach will occasionally backfire, as we witnessed in the game against the Seattle Mariners when Toronto blew a seven run lead. But you know what else backfires from time to time? Consistently challenging hitters.

The difference leads me to wonder: Why is it that when we say “he refused to challenge the hitter,” it’s meant as a criticism?

Challenging the hitter connotes an even playing field, but the pitcher is the one with the ball, so shouldn’t he use every advantage he has not to “challenge” the hitter, but rather manipulate him? We’re quick to praise the Red Sox and Yankees for their patient approach at the plate, so why shouldn’t we extend the same praise to pitchers for their patient approach on the mound?

The thinking goes that by not being Roy Halladay efficient, you’re wasting arm strength and stamina, resulting in a short outing for the starter. But what if you have a deep bullpen that doesn’t have a problem picking up 3-4 innings every night. It seems like a lot to ask, but for a team like the Blue Jays, that currently has more money invested in relievers than starters, I can’t think of a reasonable problem to have with this strategy, and the results back it up.